Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Books, words, letters: a post about literary downsizing

We are staying in an incredibly beautiful apartment in Northampton, MA. Though I have not met the woman who lives here, I like her. This is easily explained. What I mean to say is, I like her books.

Nevermind the bedroom shelf, which already has me on board, stocked as it is with Toni Morrisons and Barbara Kingsolvers. And I won't even start counting at the bathroom reading material that includes Why Do Men Have Nipples? Hundreds of Questions You'd Only Ask a Doctor After Your Third Martini as well as 1,000 Places To See Before You Die.

The bookshelf in the hallway has enough to make me never want to leave (well, that and there are 53 steps up to this place). The eclectic nature of the gathered books is what strikes you first – Bloomingdale's Illustrated 1886 Catalog down from William Styron's Darkness Visible: A Memoir of Madness. How about the plays of Sartre and Oscar Wilde and Shakespeare? In a pile that looks a lot like college texts we find a fat, weathered Webster's New World Dictionary, Cultures Under Siege and Bisexuality and the Eroticism of Everyday Life. There is this all-star line-up: All's Quiet on the Western Front, The Scarlet Letter, Little Women, Breakfast at Tiffany's. There is the Tibetan Book of the Dead, Water Trails of Western Massachusetts, Best American Short Stories 1998, Long Walk to Freedom by Nelson Mandela and A People's History of the United States by the late Howard Zinn. Reading Lolita in Tehran is three shelves down from Lolita herself which is propped next to Michael Moore's Dude, Where's My Country? Frankly, just ogling this collection -- it's exhilarating, really.

I am currently reading a book called Reading the OED by Ammon Shea (OED = Oxford English Dictionary) (I think my sister gave it to Mike at some point. Thanks, Rita.) It's amusing to say the least. I thought Shea was a little loony talking about his fervor for dictionaries, but all I have to do is stop and catch my own reflection to see that those who live in geeky glass houses, should probably stay away from anything that looks too much like a rock. Or, something like that.

This man has read thousands and thousands (and thousands) of words and then chosen a few from each letter to share with us and comment on. I, in turn, will share just a portion of my favorites with you...like Porporate – the state of wearing purple; or Paneity – the state of being bread. There is Antithalian – opposed to fun or merriment and Bemissionary - to annoy with missionaries. After Inquilinate - to dwell in a strange place, the author relates his experience living in Los Angeles. I love Onomatomania - vexation at having difficulty in finding the right word. And of course there is Filiism – an excessive bias for one's own son.

Books, words. They are so much fun. Isaac still has a few amusing phrases I am loathe to correct, like “On your March, get set, go!” or “back and forest,” and, that old standby, “Elmo's Glue.”

Books, words. When you break it all down, we end up in letters. Isaac finds them everywhere these days. In tree branches. In his shoe laces. Twisting his craft material of choice – pipecleaners – over and and over again into letter after letter. He is fond of drawing letter combos as one-liners. (Graphic designer, anyone?)

Just in terms of full disclosure of geekdom, I have been writing a series of poems based on the letters of the alphabet and their historical derivation. Yes, it's that bad.

My poem for O is called “Learning to Write” and stars none other than my only son. The letter O is descended from the Semitic “ayin,” meaning “eye” in Phoenician. The poem begins like this:

“Look, Mama. I can draw an O.”

He meets the single, curved line perfectly, then makes another, and another.

If the writer is in love with sentences, she must be just mad for syllables,
have to cast herself prostrate before letters.

We begin here, before “Beowulf” in its squirrelly Old English,
before Dickinson's private genius, before Mandelstam
and whatever the last thing was he scrawled in that exquisite Cyrillic
the night Stalin's henchman dragged him away for the last time,
before Langston Hughes could sing out “Harlem,”
before Sharon Olds held poems “heavy as poached game” in her hands,

letters. O.

May you all slow down enough to notice and cherish the smallest among us.


bobbie said...

Obviously, you won me over completely with the word "Onomatomania" which will have to become my very own.

Your apartment full of books might keep you within it at the expense of what you went there for. No - surely the boys won't let that happen.

Dianne said...

I love being surrounded by books
and somehow another person's books seem to have added life

I think the poems of the alphabet is a beautiful idea
O is certainly a grand poem

Kitty said...

Actually, Isaac is mostly happy to stay inside - new spaces thrill him. Though he had a great time in the snow. Oh and Mike is his lackey. So, it's (oddly) me who is agitating to get going each morning.

Thanks, Dianne (or Dyan) It's just the start of the O poem. I can have my mom can sneak the whole one to you if you'd like.


Satia said...

I stumbled upon your blog by pure accident and am enchanted. Charmed even. I even found out my Ikea name although I have never shopped there myself.

And thank you for getting the title of the Hughes poem right! I shudder every time I see it mis-titled as "Dream Deferred" which I think takes so much of the edge away from what is a brilliant piece.

And one more thank you for pointing out the book Reading the OED. I'd never heard of it and I love my OED so I know I will probably love reading this book which I'm now adding to my "to read" list.

Kitty said...

Satia, thank you and welcome. Hope to keep things going here, again, I've been super regular in the past and not at all in the last year (March is looking way busy! but I'm determined...) I'm off to peek at your space. More on that OED book upcoming (via stories of my inlaws at least) kp

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